To the librarians and staff of the New Orleans Public library system, struggling to return from the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. You are truly amazing.
Almost every branch of the NOPL sustained damage during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and many are still closed and in need of renovation.
Donate by visiting the Rebuild Web site: nutrias.org/~nopl/foundation/katrinafoundationdonation.htm .
Other Gulf Coast-area libraries are also still in need of your help. You can find a complete list through the American Library Association: www.ala.org/ala/cro/katrina/katrina.htm.
Please donate generously to bring books back to those who, like us, want to believe that words can change the world.
Joe Bonamassa, for giving me Sloe Gin and the inspiration to do this thing.
“Honey!” I yelled. “Get the phone, would you?” It was ringing off the hook, and I was a little busy trying to put out a fire—a wildfire, actually, blazing across Alligator Alley along the coast of Florida. It had been burning for three long days, sending choking black smoke our way.
Never off duty, that was me. Joanne Baldwin: Weather Warden by first choice—if a world-ending storm blew up without notice, I was the go-to girl. My secondary ability—and second choice—was to act as a Fire Warden, which was what was occupying me at the moment. Being an Earth Warden, helping living things heal and grow, and controlling things such as earthquakes and volcanoes, was also something I could do, though not nearly as reliably or as well. As far as being comfortable with the abilities, having Earth powers was still a distant, weird, cautious third.
I stood on the balcony of my apartment building, my eyes stinging from the whipping wind and drifting smoke, and worked magic. It didn’t look like I was doing much of anything. Truthfully, I probably could have gone inside, picked up the phone, and talked to whatever cold-calling telemarketer was on the other end . . . but I was feeling frustrated, and I needed to do something positive, so I was concentrating, from a distance of several miles away, on rendering burnable underbrush less burnable. These changes would have to be undone later, for safety, but they made dandy firebreaks in the meantime.
Of course, I was interfering with Fire Wardens and Weather Wardens who were already doing their assigned jobs. Well, that was why I was the boss, right? That was what bosses did—interfere. (My bosses always had, anyway, although come to think of it, I hadn’t liked it much when I’d been on the sticky end of the problem.)
The phone quit ringing. Good, I thought. Maybe they’d just given up.
The glass door behind me rumbled open on its track. I didn’t turn away from the railing until a man’s hand dangled the phone over my shoulder. I looked at the phone delivery service, eyebrows raised in silent question; David just raised his own in response.
David was always fantastic on the eyes, but he was especially great just now, at sunset, when the red sky picked up bronze tints in his skin and highlighted supernatural sparks in his eyes. Oh, his eyes—currently the rich, dark color of old pennies—were taking on a brighter hue as I watched, because although David was currently wearing human form, and liked to wear it a lot, at a DNA level he was something completely different. We call them Djinn, because the old tales of those supernatural creatures able to do humans’ dirty work were somewhat true.
Of course, these tales were also a whole lot not true, as I continued to learn every day.
David was only half dressed, in a pair of worn blue jeans riding low on his hips. There was a lot of tempting gold-dusted skin on display, and so much to admire, from broad shoulders to abs that would make a Greek statue cry with envy.
He usually had a shirt on, but then, David was actuallymore modest than I was. At least, in public. In private . . . well. Let’s just say that when David played at being human, he brought his A game.
David waggled the phone again, significantly. I blinked and took it, thinking that the last thing in the world I wanted just now was to get distracted from enjoying the view. “Hello?”
I wasn’t prepared for the volume—or the tirade— that erupted out of the phone. “Joanne, would you please butt out already? Jeez, woman, we can save the world without you! Just go relax! Do you even own a dictionary? Vacation! Look it up!”
The voice on the other end was Paul Giancarlo, one of the most powerful element-controlling Wardens in the country. He happened to specialize in weather work; he was also one of my oldest surviving friends. The tone was a strongly Jersey-accented bellow, barely contained by the phone’s speaker. I held the phone farther from my ear. “Oh, hey, Paul,” I said. “So. How’s that fire going?”
“The fire is going fine, and you need to quit screwing around. You are not on duty. I have coverage on the damn fire, and you need to stop—”
“Helping? Thought you needed it. Because three days is kind of a long time to be breathing smoke—”
“Kid. Stop already. We’re on top of it!”
I doubted that. “Let me talk to Lewis.” Lewis Levander Orwell, my old college buddy and part-time crush, was the only guy in the entire Wardens organization who still had the right to tell me what to do, a fact that made me a little smug and—yes, I could admit it—a little insufferable.
“Lewis doesn’t want to talk to you. Lewis wants me to tell you to butt out. Get it? You’re on vacation. Vacate already.”
Before I could fire back, Paul hung up on me. I stared at the phone, surprised and a little wounded.
David took it from my fingers, put it on the patio table behind me, and said, “I assume he told you that you aren’t needed right now. No, actually I don’t assume that. I overheard.”
“People three doors down heard it,” he said. “It wasn’t a great feat of supernatural detection.”
I glared at him for a second, but honestly, I couldn’t stay angry at David, especially when he gave me that look.
But I glanced toward the fire again anyway, and I heard him sigh. “Jo. Let go. I know how hard it is for you, but you need to let other people handle their jobs. That’s why they have them.”
“Three days!” I said, pointing an accusatory finger toward the smoke. “Come on, you don’t think they could have been a little more aggressive about it?”
“You know as well as I do that sometimes managing how a fire burns is more important than putting it out,” he said all too reasonably, and stepped between me and my view of the conflagration. Not that he wasn’t, you know, burning hot himself. Because he definitely was, and I felt myself inevitably getting distracted.
“Stop that,” I said, not with a lot of strength.
“Stop what?” He reached for my hands, and I shivered as a breeze moved across my back, which was left mostly bare by my sky blue halter top. Florida had been kind to me, for a change, with lots of sun, lots of untroubled, cloud-free beaches. It was as if the Wardens themselves had conspired to make my vacation uneventful, at least on the weather front, until this fire thing had popped up.
And that had been okay for the first couple days. And then it had just kept on coming. I know it sounds crazy, but I’d gotten a little bit too rested.
Not that David couldn’t make that haunting feeling of uselessness go away; he was promising to, just with the gentle pressure of his fingers moving up my bare arms.
“Stop making me want you,” I said. That got the eyebrows again, and a slightly wounded frown.
“You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t, actually. You think I’m manipulating you?”
“You’re Djinn,” I said. “Manipulating people is basically built into your DNA. I’m not really sure you can help it. But—I didn’t mean that. I’m just—I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m thinking. I just—”
“You want to be taking action,” he said. “Yes. I know. You really do need to learn how to let go.”
“What I don’t need is even more vacation.” I stepped back from David and dropped grumpily into a deck chair, stretching my long, bare legs out in front of me. The tan was coming along nicely. Great accomplishment. Everybody else is saving the world; you’re golden-browning.
“Oh, I think you definitely do,” David said, and draped himself over the other chair, chin propped on his fist. “I have never met anyone who needed to learn to relax more than you do.”
And that was saying a lot; he’d met a lot of people—millions, probably. I still didn’t have any clear idea of how old David really was, only that his birth date was so far back in history that the idea of calendars had been newfangled. He’d been around, my lover. The fact that he was hanging around here, letting me be bitchy to him, was kind of amazing.
Before I could apologize to him, the phone rang again. I picked up the cordless extension, pressed the button, and said, “Paul, I swear, I’m not—”
A businesslike voice on the other end said, “May I speak with Joanne Baldwin?”
“Speaking.” I rolled my eyes at David. Another attempt to sell me flood insurance or steel hurricane shutters. I readied the I’m-in-an-apartment speech, which usually served to put a stop to these things.
“Ms. Baldwin, hello, my name is Phil Garrett. I’m an investigative reporter with the New York Times. I’d like to speak with you about the organization known as the Wardens. I believe you’re one of its senior members. Could I have your title?”
I blinked, and my expression must have been something to behold, because David slowly straightened up in his chair, leaning forward. “You—sorry, what? What did you say?”
“Phil Garrett. New York Times. Calling about the Wardens. I have some questions for you.”
“I”—my voice locked tight in my throat—“got another call, hold on.” In a panic, I hit the END CALL button and put the phone down on the table, staring at it as if it had grown eight legs and was about to scuttle off. “Oh my God.”
“What?” David asked. He looked interested, not alarmed. Apparently, I was amusing when panicked.
The phone rang again. I didn’t move to pick it up. David took it and said, pleasantly, “Yes?” There was a pause while he listened. “I see. Mr. Garrett, I’m very sorry, but Ms. Baldwin can’t speak to you right now. What’s your deadline?” His mouth compressed into a thin line, clearly trying not to smile at whatever my face was doing now. I could hardly breathe, I felt so cold. “I see. That’s fairly soon. Ms. Baldwin is actually on vacation right now. Maybe there’s someone else you can—” Another pause, and his gaze darted toward mine. “You were given her number.”
I mouthed, blankly, Shit! David lifted one shoulder in a half shrug. This could not be happening. I mouthed, By who? David dutifully repeated the question.
“Not at liberty to divulge your sources,” he said, for my benefit. “I see. If you want my opinion, I think you’re being used, Mr. Garrett. And you’re wasting your time.”
He listened. I felt my heart hammer even faster. Mr. Garrett wasn’t going down easy.
“I’ll have her call you back,” David said, hung up, and put the phone back on the table. He leaned forward, watching me, hands folded. “You’re scared.”
I nodded, with way too much emphasis. “Reporters. I hate reporters. I hate reporters from little weekly papers in One Horse, Wyoming, so how much do you think I’m going to hate somebody from the New York Times? Guess.”
“You don’t even know him. Maybe this is a good thing. Good publicity.”
“Are you on crack? Of course it’s not a good thing! He’s a reporter! And we’re a secret organization! Who the hell gave him his info? And my number?”
“Jo, he’s a reporter. He didn’t have to get your number from anyone inside the Wardens. He could have gotten it through simple research. As to what put him on to the whole topic . . .” David shrugged. He was right. With all the disasters and potentially life-destroying events that we’d had the last few years, the Wardens had been a little more public than anyone liked.
And so had I.
I grabbed for the phone and dialed Lewis’s cell. It rang to voice mail. “Lewis, call me back. I’ve got reporter troubles. Look, if this is your idea of a joke and you staked me out as the sacrificial goat for the media, I am not going to be the only one on the altar when they get out the knives—”
David took the phone and hung it up, very calmly. “That’s enough of the metaphor,” he said. “Look, you don’t need to flail around. You know what to say. Deny everything. They won’t have proof. They never do. And even if they do have something, refer them to the government and the UN. It’ll go away.”
“What if it doesn’t?” I chewed my lip in agitation, tasting tangerine gloss. Great. Now I was destroying my makeup, too, and the whole purpose of lip gloss was to stay interestingly kissable. “Look, it’s the Times. This is different. I’m worried.”
David cocked his head, looking bemused now. “I’ve seen you face down monsters, hurricanes, and tornadoes, and you’re scared of a phone call?”
“It’s bigger than that.” I felt it in my gut. “There was a reporter a few months ago. When I was on my way to Sedona with Venna. She knew things. It was just a matter of time, I guess, before word got around and people got to digging. Dammit! I should have known this was coming.”
He leaned forward and took my hands. His felt warm, strong, calming. “I have a question that will scare you even more, if you want to change the subject, ” he said, after a long moment.
I frowned at him. “No games.”
“No. This is a serious question.” He slipped off the deck chair, and one knee touched the concrete balcony floor. He never looked away from my face, and he never let go of my hands. “This is a question that’s going to need a serious answer.”
My heart froze, then skipped to catch up on its beats. “I—” I couldn’t begin to think of what to say. I just waited. I probably had it all wrong, anyway.
“Will you marry me?” he asked.
Oh. I didn’t have it wrong at all.
My lips parted, and nothing, absolutely nothing, came out. Was he serious? He couldn’t be serious. We were comfortable together; we had love, we had partnership, we had—everything.
Everything except . . . well, this—an official kind of commitment.
Not possible, some part of my brain reported briskly. David was a supernatural Djinn, only partly tied to the mortal world. I might have been a Warden, with extra powers over wind, water, air, earth, living things . . . but I was just human, when it came down to brass tacks. He was immortal; I wasn’t, and I was achingly aware of that, every day that passed between us.